The SEC is flexing its muscles in March again.
Tennessee’s win Sunday — an 83-77 decision in overtime over Iowa — gave the SEC its fourth Sweet 16 team. Before Sunday, that hadn’t happened since 1996. That’s only the third time in conference history that it accounted for 4 Sweet 16 teams.
It wasn’t just that the Vols earned their first Sweet 16 berth since 2014, or that Rick Barnes became the first coach since ever to bench a player of Admiral Schofield’s caliber for an entire overtime period of the NCAA Tournament.
As recently as 3 years ago, the SEC didn’t even have 4 teams make the NCAA Tournament. Now, 4 SEC teams will play in the Sweet 16. No, it isn’t quite as impressive as when the SEC had 3 teams in the Elite Eight like 2017, nor is it like when the SEC had a pair of teams in the Final Four and the national champ like 2006.
But in terms of the SEC realistically changing the narrative about it being a second-tier Power 5 hoops conference, 4 teams in the Sweet 16 seems like a good place to start.
What does that mean? Well, the previous two times — 1986 and 1996 — a team from Kentucky ended up cutting down the nets with a national title.
UK is the only team left from the Bluegrass State after dusting off Wofford and limiting star Fletcher Magee to an 0-for-12 performance from 3-point range. Tennessee showed its grit in fending off pesky Iowa in overtime in a second-round game, while LSU battled late-season adversity to turn away Maryland in a tight game. And, of course, Auburn might be the most dangerous team after running away with the SEC tournament title and blowing out perennial power Kansas.
Two-time SEC player of the year Grant Williams scored six points in overtime and Tennessee held off Iowa to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.
Williams had a pair of free throws, two jumpers, and a strip in overtime that helped the Vols (31-5) pull it out and match their school record for wins in a season. He finished with 19 points and seven rebounds.